Field Report 5: Only Drowning Men Could See Him


 “Asleep in Jesus,” reads a fairly recent grave marking dated 1917. This man’s whole life, James Harris, has been boiled down to “husband” who is “asleep in Jesus.”

We can only see that he is Christian and his view on death. He, like so many other decaying Americans, is asleep with his savior waiting for his return. Mr. Harris does not proclaim his sect, only that he patiently awaits sweet Rapture. It is interesting to note that almost no grave marking has any indication of their specific Christianity except that of a kind and loving Jesus who will soon steal them from this sinful plane into the Kingdom of Peace.

If one were to ask an American Christian what their denomination is, they would gladly tell you. But not once have I seen “Devout Methodist” or “Loving Baptist” on a tombstone. Please correct me if you have seen otherwise. The Christian dead in America go down as Catholic or generic Christian.

What’s most interesting to me, though, is the final line, Asleep in Jesus. This is a fairly minimalist, perhaps one could say masculine, grave marking. To be asleep in Jesus is, to the outsider, unmanly. Why is this his final inscription? Why not simply With Jesus? There is an intimacy here. This sort of language and imagery is seen all over Richmond cemeteries.

This is due to a big movement in the late 19th century of what scholars would later call the “Feminine Jesus.” Before, Jesus was not such a celebrity. There is no denying that he is key to the entire religion but God was generally seen as the main figure. It was not until the Victorian Era that Jesus was seen not only as the gateway to Heaven, but a component to a happy life. Artists began to dress him in form fitting robes that accentuated his hips and novelists conveyed that his sacrifice was the essence of Victorian womanhood.

Thus, to be asleep in Jesus is like going back to one’s mother. It is a comfort for both parties and all who witness understand the pain and love within. It is birth and death and rebirth. All of this can be viewed in a Freudian lens but I’d like to think of it as a very American tradition. God is a father and Jesus plays the role of loving mother, but only in America. This role is exacerbated in death.

Walking through the torn Evergreen Cemetery was depressing for the usual reasons. It was the same story I had heard a dozen times before in this class. All of it began to wear on me. But looking on this stone gave me the image of a funeral procession, quiet, serene, probably awkward and hot. I thought of how the family and friends must have viewed his embalmed body, continuously telling themselves that he was asleep in Jesus.

Then I thought that perhaps he was alone in his burial, thus his short epitaph. That maybe he was the only one comforted by the thought, or even the engraver after the fact of death.

I’m uncertain as to how Jesus would take all of this attention or James Harris himself.

Sorry, Mr. Harris. I do sincerely hope you are fast asleep in Jesus.


One thought on “Field Report 5: Only Drowning Men Could See Him”

  1. Nescio,
    You raised an interesting question about people of different Christian faiths declaring their sect. I believe in Hollywood Cemetery I witnessed a few graves, which did in fact proclaim that the individual buried there was an Evangelical. In fact one inscription even documented the number of “souls” the individual saved. Though perhaps fewer branches did this because they believed they had truest form of the faith, ergo they did not need to claim it on a headstone. Or perhaps it was seen as unnecessary the majority.
    As far as the framing of the statement- I have to agree with you that the statement seems a bit off. Mayhap he cannot be asleep with Jesus because it would infer Jesus is resting and thus not keeping watch over his soul. My initial thought was that he became part of the god, but that did not seem to align with Christian beliefs. Your thoughts on the intimacy of the statement are quite intriguing. Now when I go back to the statement I think of how a mother protects the child in her womb.
    Thank you

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *